Sermon

Matthew 22:34-40

In a Nutshell

By Richard Niell Donovan

“Give it to me in a nutshell”—an old saying — it means, Tell me what I need to know, but keep it short. Don’t bother me with unnecessary detail. Don’t bore me with a long, technical explanation. Just get to the bottom line.

We like things short and sweet. Network television news has time only to hit the high spots and to show us a few pictures, but it gives us the big picture in a few minutes. We like that.

I used to have to sit through weekly staff meetings. Sometimes they would go on for two hours, because everyone wanted to have their say. Then we got a new boss who limited each of us to one overhead slide. Each slide had about ten lines, so each person could show us the status of ten programs—max. We had to code each program green, yellow, or red. Green meant that everything was OK. Yellow meant that there was a problem. Red meant, Whoops! Furthermore, we weren’t to ramble. Stand up! Speak up! Shut up! Sit down! I loved it, because we got through the meetings quickly, and I could get back to work.

Give it to me in a nutshell!

That’s what the lawyer said to Jesus—Give it to me in a nutshell. At least that is what he meant. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” (22:36).

This man was not a lawyer as we know lawyers today—he was a religious scholar. The law was Jewish Torah law—Old Testament commandments. There were 613 such laws. You are familiar with some of them. Thou shalt not steal. They shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Others are less familiar. One law, for example, forbade boiling a calf in its mother’s milk. Observant Jews today still take care not to mix meat and milk. Many observant families have one set of dishes for meat and another set for dairy products.

So when the lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” he was asking about Torah law— religious commandments.

Matthew tells us that this lawyer asked Jesus this question to test him. The New Testament was written originally in Greek, and the Greek word here is peirazo. The lawyer asked Jesus this question to peirazohim. Peirazo also means tempt. It is the word that is used in the story of Jesus’ temptation. The devil tempted Jesus—peirazo’d Jesus. Now this lawyer is testing Jesus—tempting him—trying to trip him up. If he can get Jesus to pronounce one law most important, this lawyer is sure that he can twist things to embarrass Jesus—to discredit him. That was what he intends to do.

Jesus knows what was going on. He understands that this man is his enemy. He understands that he is treading on dangerous ground.

Have you ever experienced anything like that—being challenged “out of the blue” by a person whom you knew to be an enemy —put on the spot by someone trying to trip you up—to get you to make a mistake? It is pretty scary!

But Jesus didn’t let it faze him. He didn’t hesitate for a moment. He answered:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
This is the first and great commandment.
A second likewise is this,
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
The whole law and the prophets
depend on these two commandments”
(22:37-40).

Good answer, Jesus! Most of us have heard this story before, and knew what Jesus was going to say. Love God! Love your neighbor! Good answer! How could anyone argue with that?

But the other question is, How can anyone do that—love God—love your neighbor? Love God! Usually not a problem! At least it is not a problem when things are going well. During those times of our lives when we are healthy, wealthy and wise, it is easy to love God. Thank you, God, for my good life! Thank you, God, for my family —my health—my job! Thank you, God, for all my stuff! It is easy enough to love God when things are going really well—although sometimes we forget God when things are going really well.

Ironically, it is often possible to love God when things are going really badly—when life brings us to our knees. Then we find time to pray. Cancer! Pray! Child in trouble! Pray! Need a job! Pray!

It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes when things go badly, we hate God. Some years ago, a popular film actress got drunk, fell off the boat, and drowned. One of her friends was reported as asking, “How could God let this happen?” This friend was really angry with God because this actress got drunk, fell off the boat, and drowned.

But, most of the time, when things are going badly, we find it easy to love God, because we realize that we need God’s help, and we want God near us.

Love your neighbor! Now we get to the hard part. That depends on who our neighbor happens to be.

I am fortunate to have a good neighbor. He is always cheerful—always helpful. If I need to borrow a wrench or a lawnmower, I know that he will lend it to me. I like him a lot.

But then I have another neighbor who is noisy. He likes to fish, and the best fishing seems to be at five o’clock in the morning. At least that is when he starts up his pickup, which is parked outside our bedroom window. He lets the engine warm up while he loads gear in the back. Then he hitches up his boat. There is a certain amount of door slamming involved in all this. You guessed it—by the time he leaves, I am wide-awake.

Perhaps I should tell you that the good neighbor and the bad neighbor are the same guy—a good guy—I really shouldn’t complain—but sometimes I do.

But I have had other neighbors who drove over my lawn, leaving ruts that I had to smooth before I could mow. And I have had neighbors who played loud music. And then there was the neighbor with the overgrown lawn.

Or what about neighbors on airplanes! Did you ever find yourself seated beside an unruly child? Not much fun, is it!

And then there are the really serious neighbor problems— the ones at church—the ones at work—people whom we really can’t stand— but with whom we serve on the same committees and compete for the same budget.

And then there are the really hostile neighbors. I read about a man who got mad at his neighbor and began retaliating—blowing his leaves onto her lawn—plowing his snow onto her yard. At some point she called the police, and these two neighbors are now in court. Terrible! Try never to get into a contest with your neighbor. Neither of you will win.

It is easy enough to love a neighbor who is doing the right things, but what about the neighbor who is not? How can we love such a person?

It might help to know that the love about which Jesus was speaking is not the warm fuzzy feeling that we think of as love. The commandment about loving your neighbor comes from Leviticus 19. That chapter gives us a picture of neighborly love. It says that, if we love our neighbor:

• We won’t render an unjust judgment.
• We won’t let a person’s money—or lack of it—affect our relationship.
• We will judge the neighbor with justice.
• We won’t engage in slander.
• We won’t profit by the blood of the neighbor.
• We won’t hate.
• We won’t take vengeance or bear a grudge.

Note that there isn’t anything in there about warm fuzzy feelings. There is nothing about enjoying the neighbor’s company. Love, in that context, is more about how we act than how we feel —although it does prohibit hate and grudge bearing.

G-R-U-D-G-E B-E-A-R-I-N-G!!! How can I get through the day
without a little G-R-U-D-G-E B-E-A-R-I-N-G!!!

That is a good question! How can we go through life avoiding the bad things that Jesus wants us to avoid—and doing the good things that he wants us to do? How can we keep from saying bad things about our neighbor—especially when our neighbor deserves it? How can we control our feelings? How can we keep from hating a bad neighbor?

The answer is that we can’t—at least not on our own. I can tell myself every day not to hate my neighbor, and end up hating myself for hating my neighbor. I can try really hard not to engage in grudge bearing, but it probably isn’t going to work.

If I am going to love my neighbor, I must first love God— and then be willing to let God help me to love my neighbor. The lawyer asked Jesus for one great commandment, but Jesus gave him two—love God— love your neighbor. The two go together. Each leans on the other and helps to support it.

It is hard to show our love for God, because God isn’t really needy—so God gave us a neighbor. The idea is that, when we help our neighbor, it is as if we are helping God.

We might find it impossible to love our neighbor, but it becomes possible when we first love God. God not only tells us to love our neighbor—God re-shapes our hearts to make it possible.

So these two loves go together—love of God and love of neighbor. We can’t really love our neighbor unless we first love God, and we can’t really demonstrate our love for God without our neighbor.

This might sound very academic, but it is really very practical. For instance, I have advised my son to look for a woman who loves Jesus. There are a number of good reasons to do so, but one reason is that a woman who loves Jesus will continue to love her husband—or at least TRY to love her husband—even when he doesn’t deserve it. Every marriage has its rough places—times when love is threadbare. Every couple comes to a place where one or both question whether they should continue together. In those tough times, loving Jesus helps. It doesn’t solve every problem, and it doesn’t save every marriage—but loving Jesus often makes it possible for us to love the people near us, even when we don’t feel very loving—even when they don’t deserve our love.

One last thought! As I said, the love of which Jesus speaks here is more about what we do than how we feel. Jesus isn’t calling for us to feel warm feelings for God or neighbor. He is calling us to show our love for God by our obedience to God—and he is calling us to love our neighbor by acting in loving ways—by acts of kindness—by loving service —by gentle words and generous deeds. What we will find, if we do this— if we obey God and do good deeds for our neighbor—is that feelings follow actions. Our loving actions will help us, in God’s time, to feel the warmth and affection that we could never feel otherwise.

Love God! Love your neighbor! It is God’s way— and it is a very good way!

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2002 Richard Niell Donovan